Christmas in America

By Rev. David Wilson Rogers |  December 24, 2016

            In many ways, the annual event we know as Christmas is a distinctively American celebration that is less than 170 years old. More importantly, it is a celebration that has defined us as a culture and a nation in very powerful ways. For Americans, Christmas is more than just a time to remember Christ’s birth because of what the season has done for us over the last one and a half centuries.
            In our earliest history as a nation, the diverse European immigrants that settled in what would eventually become the United States of America each had distinctively different attitudes toward the Christmas celebration. In recognizing the reality that there is no Biblical call for, or example of, an annual remembrance of Christ’s birth, many early American Christians disavowed the custom completely. They believed that since the Bible does not call for Christmas, Christians should not observe or celebrate Christmas.
Other Christians enthusiastically embraced the season as a time for wintertime social gatherings and merriment because it was seen as carrying the old English traditions over to the New World. Yet, even as they celebrated Christmas, there were vastly different customs and traditions associated with the observance.
Following the Revolutionary War, American observance of Christmas almost totally vanished because it was too closely associated with colonial rule and the British Crown. Christmas. For roughly 75 years, Christmas practically did not exist in America.
Christmas began to come back in the second half of the 19th Century. By the 1850’s America was vastly different from the nation founded in 1776. Industrialization was revolutionizing both the economy and cultural landscape. Manufacturing would begin to eclipse agriculture in economic significance, and the rise of urban centers began to materialize. As factories grew, so did the cities surrounding them.
            Communication and transportation technology were also redefining America in profound ways. With the invention of the Telegraph and ease that railroad transportation allowed, travel, commerce, mail delivery, agriculture, and industry were all revolutionized.  
            Immigration increased and brought with it cultural clashes and fierce disagreements over how diverse cultures should be handled within the US. This inevitably created a mix of hope along with tension and anger. For some, the change was welcomed, but for many it was seen as a threat to the old ways that were loved and cherished.  
            With all the changes happening in America at the time, there was legitimate cause to wonder if the 75-year-old country could survive. Then, when the issue of human slavery was added to the mix, the nation fractured; resulting in the American Civil War. Yet, for all the brutalities of the war and its devastating effect on the families of America, the war did bring out a longing for a time when the people of America could come together, heal, and unite on something less volatile as the economics of slavery, limitations of State’s Rights, or attitudes toward industry. That longing found fulfillment in the ancient observance of Christ’s birth.
            Over the next quarter of a century, the many customs now associated with Christmas—from the decorations to the rituals of gift giving, caroling, family gatherings, and philanthropic giving to the poor, all came into being as distinctively American expressions of Christmas. In many ways, it has been Christmas that has helped hold us together as a nation in the years following the Civil War. Perhaps it is Christmas that can continue to do so today!